Sunny Slope Orchard

Sunny Slope Orchard
In the coast range foothills overlooking the Sacramento Valley

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Our mobile chicken coop

Chickens are wonderfully peaceful, productive and amusing animals to have around. Their gentle clucking and enthusiasm for all things food add a wonderful presence to our farm. And their talent for converting kitchen scraps, worms and bugs, and feed into fresh eggs while adding fertility to the soil is recycling at its best.

But these busy eaters need to be contained and also protected from predators. About a year ago I built a mobile chicken coop, often called a "chicken tractor." This pen on wheels is a 5' x 10' cage with a secure roosting and nest box space above. The wheels allow easy moving so the hens can enjoy fresh ground to scratch for worms or eat fresh greens while staying safe from hawks, raccoons and other predators. The mobile coop makes it easy to use the chickens' scavenging and fertilizing skills to good advantage in the garden. After digging potatoes, I move the coop over the spud plot and the hens dig and scratch for slugs and wire worms, cleaning out pests while leaving their fertilizer behind for the next crop. Prior to planting broccoli and carrots, I roll the coop over the plot to pre-weed, de-bug and fertilize the ground. And when a garden plot is to be fallow for a season I plant it with a chicken-friendly cover crop and when seed heads mature, roll the chickens in to feast on seed heads and bugs.

Our mobile chicken coop, made from 2x2 redwood and plywood

Retractable wheels raise the coop 4" off the ground. The wheels are just behind the balance point of the coop, so after lowering the wheels it is very easy to lift the front handle and pull the coop around. The video below shows the lifting mechanism: a steel lever (1" x 2" channel iron) pivots on a shaft running through the coop. The wheel axles are offset 4" behind the shaft, so when the lever is rotated 90 deg. the coop lifts 4".

The nest box lid opens for easy egg collection

Nest boxes inside view

The side door opens for cleanout of the roosting area

A sliding door keeps the hens extra safe from predators that might dig under the coop at night. I added a mechanism to automatically open the door at dawn for those times when I might not get outside bright and early. It is operated by a used automobile window motor I found on ebay, powered by an inexpensive gate opener battery, a timer and some switches. I designed it so that I must manually close it in the evening since I want to check that the hens are safely at roost before closing. A cheap 1/2 watt solar panel keeps the battery charged at all times.

An automotive window motor operates a door that automatically
lets the hens out of their roosting box each morning

A battery, timer and switches operate the automatic door. A 1/2 watt
solar panel keeps the battery charged.
The video below shows the door being operated manually. The mechanism contacts switches at the fully closed and fully open positions, to interrupt the current and stop the motor.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Frittata
With our steady supply of fresh eggs, one of our go-to meals is frittata, a baked mixture of vegetables, potato, onion, cheese and eggs. The recipe link below containing butternut squash is a great variation. The creamy squash blended with the eggs really covers up the "eggy" character of regular frittata, making a slightly sweet rich body for the dish. Since we grew sweet potatoes in the garden this summer we have started substituting them for the butternut squash and can report that this version works equally well.

Link to Butternut Squash Frittata recipe